Iran shows its reach with militia attacks across the Middle East

A man looks at a protest by Hezbollah supporters in a show of solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza (Reuters/Amr Alfiqi)

The Gaza war has given Iran an opportunity to showcase the capabilities of its newly formed network of allied forces.According to the groups’ members and military analysts, the move allowed it to keep distance from the fighting while demonstrating Tehran’s strategic reach.

Since Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7, every day one of these militias has carried out attacks somewhere in the Middle East, and some in different places on some days. Houthis attacks on ships in the Red Sea off Yemen; Kata’ib Hezbollah and other Iraqi groups attack US targets in Iraq and Syria; And Hezbollah Lebanon engages in daily shootouts with Israeli forces along the Israel-Lebanon border.

The attacks may seem random, but they are the fruit of a carefully crafted strategy in the wake of the 2020 assassination of Iran’s elite Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani to bring cohesion to the loosely knit militia coalition designated by Tehran. “Axis of Resistance”.

Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah salutes during his speech at a rally in Beirut, Lebanon, 2006 (Reuters/Mohammed Azakir)

Although these groups appear to be unrelated to each other – a rebel organization in Yemen; Guerrilla movement in Lebanon; and militias formed to fight against American troops in Iraq -, They all have something in common: their loyalty to Iran, which arms, funds and inspires them, the groups’ members and analysts said. Together with Hamas, they form the main components of the “resistance” axis.

“What these various elements have done, by moving forward with these attacks, shows the strength of this power network that Iran has established throughout the region and This is so worrying.” The area at the time of the US drone strike in Baghdad that killed Soleimani.

In interviews, officials associated with the three main groups described an unprecedented level of coordination Over nearly two decades Iran has begun to develop a variety of local allies as a way to increase its regional influence. Militia representatives cooperate and consult through a joint operations room that meets periodically, usually in Beirut, but not always.

Officials said no single group is in control, and each has a degree of autonomy over when and what attacks to carry out in their area, according to their local capabilities and agenda. For example, the Houthis have taken the lead in attacking shipping in order to pressure the international community to demand a ceasefire from Israel in Gaza. Iraqi groups attack US targets in response to the Biden administration’s support for Israel. Hezbollah is firing on Israel to remove Israeli troops from the Gaza front.

File photo: Smoke rises from the village of Dhayra after Israeli bombing, a photo from the Lebanese town of Marwahin near the border with Israel (Reuters/Mohammed Azakir)

At the same time, according to group officials, all operations are calibrated avoid widespread regional warSuggesting that although the militias have autonomy in individual operations, their actions are not designed to conflict with Iran’s strategic objectives.

“During the meetings we talked about updates and progress on all fronts and how the operations strategically benefit each of them,” said an official with Kata’ib Hezbollah, the largest Iraqi group that carried out the attacks. The official, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “Iran provides all kinds of assistance, but when it comes to decisions and actions on the ground, the decision is ours.”

The Lebanese leader of Hezbollah, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, addresses his followers (Reuters/Aziz Taher)

Hezbollah leader, Hassan NasrallahAs the highest-ranking individual in command of the oldest, most successful and battle-hardened group, he has played a leading role in strengthening the alliance, officials say.

Soleimani’s death had thrown the Axis leadership into disarray. As commander of the international wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Soleimani almost single-handedly developed the militia, and in the process achieved a legendary stature that far exceeded his formal rank.

Without Soleimani, rivalries flared up, especially among Iraqi fighters, whose common leader, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis was killed in the same attack as Soleimani.

Nasrallah intervened to mediate and began implementing a new strategy, which he called “unity of fronts”, and all groups committed to take action in their respective areas if any of them were attacked. Went. This strategy has been put into practice for the first time in the Gaza war.

According to officials, Nasrallah has become the first among peers. When he gave his first public speech since the Gaza War began, Iraqi militias gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to watch the speech live on giant screens.

File photo: Brigadier General Esmail Ghani, head of the elite Iranian Quds Force (Reuters)

,We consider Hassan Nasrallah the official spokesperson of the resistance, one of its fundamental pillars and one of its most important symbols.“, the head of Kata’ib Hezbollah declared. “He has the respect and appreciation of all Iraqi parties and we consider him a protector for all of us.”

Votel recalls that after Soleimani’s death he was concerned that Iraqi militias would lose the discipline imposed by their Iranian commander. Instead, he said, the restructuring has strengthened their solidarity.

,The fact that they have gone horizontal rather than vertical seems to be a strong point for themVotel said.

Hamidreza Azizi, a former professor of regional studies at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran and now a visiting professor at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said that “the million dollar question is what role Iran plays in global direction”. “In a way, Iran may or may not be behind these activities.”

Soleimani’s replacement, Ismail Qaani, has adopted a much lower profile than his predecessor, lacking Soleimani’s charisma and his history of personal relationships with groups.

payable, Iran has changed the stance of Quds Force, providing greater autonomy to local groups while still maintaining their own interests. But Qaani is very active behind the scenes, moving between the capitals of countries where the militias are based, Azizi said.

“Qani is everywhere. “He is a planner,” he said. “But they intentionally want to keep it very low-profile.”

An IRGC official is present at most joint operations meetings, according to a person affiliated with Hezbollah familiar with the procedures. But Iran is represented only as “One of all”“Without playing any major role,” Nasreddin Amer, a Houthi spokesman in Sanaa and head of the Sabah news agency, said.

From Iran’s perspective this strategy seems to be working well. It is able to assert its regional influence through isolated attacks, Azizi said, without sparking a major confrontation that could endanger its militant allies and potentially draw Iran into direct conflict. .

,Iran feels quite comfortable“, he claimed. “These groups can come together to protect their interests and they have shown their commitment not to let one of their members, in this case Hamas, completely go out of the picture without any repercussion. Willingness has been demonstrated.”

Whether the strategy will continue to work to Iran’s advantage is in doubt as Israel expresses growing anger over Hezbollah attacks on its northern border. “If the world and the Lebanese government do not take action to stop the firing of northern Israeli residents and drive Hezbollah away from the border, the IDF will do so”Israeli Minister Benny Gantz made the announcement last week, warning that Israel could launch a full-scale attack on Lebanon.

Israel has also stepped up attacks against Iranian allies and assets in the region. On Monday, an Israeli strike in Syria killed Razi Mousavi, a senior IRGC commander, prompting threats of direct retaliation from Iran.

However, an open war would derail Iran’s strategy. But militia officials say they are confident their attacks are a sufficient deterrent to both Israel and the United States, without escalating the conflict beyond the current level.

Salim reported from Baghdad and Hadamous reported from Washington. Ali Mujahid in Sanaa, Yemen contributed to this report.

© 2023, The Washington Post

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